How To Survive Political Conversations Over The Holidays: Insights from a doctor of psychology

Dr. Marina Harris

Photo by christian buehner on Unsplash

We are entering an unprecedented holiday season. A rapidly spreading coronavirus is peaking and again threatening to overwhelm the health system. We are more politically polarized than ever. Add in surmounting holiday stress, and there is bound to be tension during the holidays.

This holiday season will look different than usual due to COVID-19. Despite limited gatherings and less travel, technology makes it easier than ever to stay connected. People may engage in virtual celebrations or see their family in a socially distant and safe way. Regardless of your plans for the holidays, difficult topics are bound to come up, and that includes politics.

It’s important that we know how to manage these conversations for our own well-being.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a treatment that teaches people to handle difficult situations without becoming overwhelmed with emotions. These skills are applicable to a wide variety of circumstances — but more importantly, DBT can teach us how to have political conversations without becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

No matter where you stand on the issues, there will be disagreements. Here are 5 crucial tips to handle difficult political conversations around the holidays — straight from a psychology expert.

1. Set a boundary ahead of time

Decide what your limits are around discussing politics. For some of us, our limit is to have no political discussions at dinner/holiday gatherings. For others, the limit is no name-calling or destructive communication around politics. Others may have no boundaries and view everything as fair game. However, it is important to know where our limits are.

Communicate those limits clearly to your family and friends ahead of time. When you make the request, acknowledge how it may be difficult for the other person to follow this limit. Lastly, reinforce them for following your limit — let them know how much you would appreciate it.

This could sound something like, “I would like to set a limit that we do not discuss politics over the holidays. I understand how this is hard given everyone’s emotions right now, and it would allow us to focus on what is important about the holiday season.”

These principles are part of a DBT skill called DEARMAN (Describe the situation, Express your emotion, Assert the request, Reinforce the person, stay Mindful, Appear confident, and Negotiate). DEARMAN is used to make requests in a way that increases the likelihood that the request is fulfilled. It also reduces defensiveness in others. See the full skill here.

Remember that people are not mind-readers. You need to clearly communicate your limits to them. When you communicate a boundary ahead of time, if they violate the boundary, you can continue to remind them of the request. You can even use the Broken Record technique, which involves repeating your message over and over again in a calm tone of voice. The power is in the repetition of your message.

2. Use dialectics

Dialectics means that two things that seem opposite can be true at the same time. Dialectics are a crucial skill when navigating interpersonal situations, especially when we need to balance multiple viewpoints — for example, a holiday gathering when politics is involved. Dialectics help us avoid blaming and assumptions and prevent us from becoming “stuck” in conflict.

Here are the main tenets of dialectics as outlined by Rathus and Miller.

“There is always more than one way to see a situation and more than one way to solve a problem.
All people have unique qualities and different points of view.
Change is the only constant.
Two things that seem like (or are) opposites can both be true.
Honor the truth in both sides of a conflict. This does not mean giving up on your values or selling out. Avoid seeing the world in “black-and-white” or “all-or-nothing” ways.”

Dialectics are crucial when discussing politics. Dialectics prevent us (and others) from becoming defensive and prevent emotional escalation around difficult topics. We can approach conversations with the understanding that people are trying their best and they can do more to change. That we can care about people and wholeheartedly disagree with them.

Rathus and Miller also suggest a “how-to” guide for dialectics. Use these tips to be dialectical in political conversations.

  • Avoid extreme words like “always,” “never,” or “you make me.” Move away from black-and-white thinking to “both-and” thinking.
  • Practice looking at all sides of a situation. Even when we fundamentally disagree with others, we can likely find a kernel of truth. Ask yourself, “What might be left out here?”
  • Use “I feel” statements instead of “You are,” “You should,” or “That’s just the way it is.” For example, say, “When I hear you say that, I feel angry,” instead of “You never listen.”
  • Accept that different opinions can be valid, even when you do not agree with them. For example, “I can see your point of view even though I do not agree with it.” *Please note that this does not apply to humans rights issues.
  • Check your assumptions. Do not assume you know what others are thinking. Check the facts by asking, “What did you mean when you said…?”

Remember, this does not mean that we are selling out. We can communicate our values to other people and understand that other people may not hold the same values as we do. by George Pagan III on Unsplash

3. Balance self-respect with keeping the relationship

Interpersonal situations are nuanced, and often we need to make decisions about which interpersonal goals to prioritize. There are times when keeping the relationship is the priority — there are also times when self-respect is the priority. Political conversations are easier to navigate when we clarify these priorities from the outset. DBT teaches us how.

Prioritizing the relationship

Sometimes our goal is to keep the relationships that matter to us. When this is our goal, we want to act in a way that keeps the respect of the other person. We work to balance other goals (being right, getting our requests met, etc.) with maintaining the relationship. When the relationship is the priority, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do I want the other person to feel about me after the interaction?
  • What can I do to keep this relationship?

Prioritizing self-respect

There are other times when our goal is to keep our own self-respect — to act in a way that helps us feel moral and to respect our own values and beliefs. This could also include acting in a way that makes you feel capable and effective. A good example of prioritizing self-respect is when we speak up for ourselves. When self-respect is the priority, ask yourself:

  • How do I want to feel about myself when I leave this interaction?
  • What can I do to feel that way about myself?

You get to decide when you want to stand up for yourself and your values, and when you’d rather keep the relationship. These limits will be different for every person and may vary by issue. But you get to choose.

By clarifying your priorities ahead of time, you’ll be well-prepared.

4. Plan ahead for drama

Politics pull for difficult emotions, especially when family and friends have opposing viewpoints. Fortunately, we can plan ahead for difficult situations. We call this Cope Ahead in DBT. Cope Ahead has five critical steps.

  1. Describe the situation in objective, nonjudgmental terms. Name the emotions and actions that might get in the way of you being effective in the situation.
  2. Decide how you will cope or problem-solve in the situation. Be specific. This could include taking deep breaths, taking a walk, having a stress-ball ready, not engaging in political conversations, and more.
  3. Imagine yourself in the situation as vividly as possible.
  4. Visualize yourself coping effectively with the situation.
  5. Practice relaxation (deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or a mindful body scan) after rehearsing.

With Cope Ahead, you can feel confident in your ability to handle precarious situations. by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

5. Have a designated support person or exit buddy

Conversations around the holiday can quickly become heated. Have a plan for when they do. Ask a friend or family member to be your designated support person.

Each person needs different forms of support. Your support person can be there with you, silently encouraging you to stick to your values through difficult conversations. They could be available via text throughout the event to give you encouragement. They can also be on standby if something crosses your limits and you feel that you need to leave.

You don’t have to forge through political conversations alone. Take advantage of the technology that allows you to access social support from anywhere. You and your pocket pal can survive the holidays together.

The takeaway

Political conversations are incredibly infuriating, especially when they center around human rights and our identities. And yet, we need to be able to manage them effectively.

Make sure to clearly communicate your boundaries at the outset. Decide when you want to prioritize your self-respect, and when you want to prioritize the relationship. Cope ahead by developing a plan and visualize yourself successfully executing that plan. Build out your support system. And lastly, use dialectics to understand that each viewpoint has a kernel of truth, even when we don’t agree with it (again, does not apply to human rights issues).

I know it’s unfair to ask that you manage your own well-being around political conversations in certain circumstances — especially for trauma survivors and when conversations turn emotionally abusive. I wish we didn’t need to set boundaries or argue with our family members about human rights. And yet, I hope you can use these tips to prioritize your own well-being.

Take care of you this holiday season. Politics and all.


Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training handouts and worksheets (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

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PhD in Clinical Psychology | Science-backed advice for living your best life | Expert on eating disorders, relationships, and athlete mental health | Former Division I Athlete


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